Treating Bolivia as a Sovereign Partner

January 11, 2009

A progressive U.S. policy toward bolivia must confront three major thrusts of Washington’s current Latin America policy: (1) the war on drugs, which is linked to the global war on terror, (2) the effort to expand U.S. economic and corporate influence through free trade agreements, and (3) a determination to counteract the growing influence of leftist leaders and the social movements that are militating against neoliberalism and the historic U.S. domination of the region.

All three came into play when Evo Morales was inaugurated as Bolivia’s president in January 2006 and therafter pursued anti-neoliberal economic policies, a strengthening of South-South foreign relations, and a more nuanced approach to controlling the illicit drug trade. As Gustavo Guzmán, former Bolivian ambassador to the United States, put it in October: “Morales’s victory represented both a defeat of past U.S. policies and a challenge to see if the United States could bend itself to the new realities of Bolivia.” Guzmán, who was expelled from Washington by the Bush administration (in retaliation for Morales’s expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg from Bolivia in September), added: “The U.S. embassy is historically used to calling the shots in Bolivia, violating our sovereignty, treating us like a banana republic.”[1]

In 2002, when Morales narrowly lost his first bid for the presidency, then U.S. ambassador in La Paz Manuel Rocha openly warned Bolivians to vote against him, saying that “if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia.”[2]

After Morales’s inauguration, the Bush administration pursued a two-track policy similar to the strategy the United States employed to overthrow the government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973: diplomatic negotiations and destabilization. Washington’s negotiations came to center almost exclusively on differences over drug policies, with the United States continually threatening to cut or curtail economic assistance and trade preferential programs if Bolivia did not closely follow the U.S. line.[3]

The destabilization took the form of direct, covert assistance to the opposition movement centered in the Media Luna region, which comprises the country’s four eastern departments (states) dominated by agro-industrial interests intent on capturing revenue from the hydrocarbon resources located in their departments. Through Washington’s embassy and the Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States funded anti-Morales social movements, along with political forces that opposed Morales himself and his political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

As in Chile under Allende, the business elites and allied truckers engaged in “strikes,” withholding or refusing to ship produce to the urban markets in the western Andes, where the country’s indigenous population is concentrated, while selling commodities on the black market at high prices. The Confederation of Private Businesses of Bolivia called for a national producers’ shutdown if the government refused “to change its economic policies.”[4]

In August, Morales put his presidency on the line with a recall referendum in which his mandate as well as the mandates of the departmental prefects (state governors) of the Media Luna could be revoked. On August 10, voters went to the polls and Morales won a resounding two thirds of the vote. However, the insurgent prefects also had their mandates renewed. They proceeded to call for autonomy, moving first to take control of Santa Cruz, the richest department.

The United States became directly involved in orchestrating this revolt of the wealthy. Ambassador Philip Goldberg flew to Santa Cruz on August 25 to meet with Rubén Costas, the prefect of Santa Cruz and the principal leader of the rebellion’s prefects and Morales’s main antagonist. After Goldberg left, Costas declared himself the “autonomous governor” of the department and ordered the formal takeover of national government offices, including those collecting tax revenues.

Morales cited Goldberg’s visit to Costas as the reason for declaring the U.S. ambassador persona non grata on September 10. Seven weeks later the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was expelled from Bolivia as the government presented evidence of the agency’s involvement in supporting the rebellious departmental activities of August and September.

The day after Goldberg was expelled, the prefects’ rebellion began to unravel as they overplayed their hand with violent actions. On September 11, in the department of Pando, a paramilitary band with machine guns attacked Indians from the community of El Porvenir near the capital of Cobija, killing at least 13 people.

The events in El Porvenir precipitated a national mobilization of the indigenous peoples and social movements as well as a sense of outrage in neighboring countries. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet called an emergency meeting in Santiago of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to discuss the Bolivian crisis. The “Declaration of La Moneda,” signed by all 12 UNASUR governments, expressed their “full and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales” and warned that their respective governments “will not recognize any situation that entails an attempt for a civil coup that ruptures the institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia.” UNASUR appointed a commission to go to Bolivia “to accompany the legitimate government of Bolivia” to establish and clarify the facts of the El Porvenir massacre, and to facilitate a dialogue with the opposition to preserve national unity.[5] Morales, who participated in the meeting, thanked UNASUR for its support, declaring: “For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems without the presence of the United States.”

The UNASUR declaration was instrumental in compelling the prefects of the Media Luna to call off their rebellion, accepting the Morales government’s call to open a dialogue over the new constitution and the issue of autonomy. But the discussion went nowhere, even though the government agreed to incorporate some limited constitutional amendments around departmental autonomy. The prefects also demanded that all the agrarian-reform clauses in the new constitution be eliminated, but in this case Morales, backed by MAS and the social movements, refused to back down. On October 5, the negotiations collapsed. Morales announced that he would go to Congress to get the date set for the public referendum on the new constitution.

Given this history, a progressive attempt to repair the situation should focus on the following: First, to overcome this hostile Washington environment and the Washington-generated misconceptions of the recent Bolivian events, it would be important for the new U.S. Congress to hold hearings on the role of the U.S. embassy and intelligence agencies in trying to destabilize the Bolivian government. Due to the entrenchment of the national security state under the Bush administration, of course, this will be a difficult task. Therefore, absent hearings by a congressional panel, it would behoove the progressive nonprofit organizations in Washington concerned with Latin American policy, along with interested academic groups, to come together and sponsor a set of public forums on what happened in Bolivia.

Second, a progressive U.S. policy would need to seriously consider adopting the model of controlling coca production that the Morales government is implementing in Bolivia. The failed U.S. war on drugs, steeped in violence, is destroying the social fabric of several countries—Colombia and Mexico in particular—and has not reduced the flow of cocaine into the United States. Just before Morales’s inauguration in 2006, he declared “Yes to Coca, No to Cocaine,” making a distinction behind the widespread use of coca leaf as an integral part of indigenous culture, and cocaine, the highly processed drug that is produced from the leaf for illegal export. During his administration, Morales has encouraged and supported local industries that make coca leaves into teas, foods, and health products, while carrying on a campaign to destroy cocaine-processing labs.[5] Agreements have been reached with small-scale growers in the coca regions of Chapare and Yungas that limit coca producers to about one third of an acre per family. These growers have collaborated with the government in eradicating plots that exceed this amount.

This contrasts sharply with the U.S. history of trying to uproot all coca production in Bolivia. From 1998 to 2003, coca growers had access to USAID funding for alternative crops, but only after the complete eradication of their coca crop. As a result families with no other income went hungry before the new crops were funded and harvested, compelling many to replant coca.[6]

USAID refused to work directly with the coca growers union in the Chapare region, then headed by Morales. They instead formed parallel associations and demanded that farmers leave the unions. Community promoters were goaded into becoming informers, generating deep divisions and conflict, as the U.S. funded special military units to carry out raids to uproot coca plants.[7]

The new administration needs to reverse course on the drug policies of the Bush administration. It must see to it that the United States no longer condition assistance by USAID on the prior eradication of coca plants. Efforts to curtail coca growing need to be done in cooperation with the coca farmers to prevent violence and human rights violations. More importantly, the war on drugs should not be used to penalize the Bolivian government because of its political differences with Washington. The new U.S. administration needs to emphasize incentives and partnerships rather than sanctions. Above all, a progressive U.S. policy regime should simply recognize the outcomes of democratic elections.

1. Author interview, October 2008.

2. Shira Gordon, “Bolivia: Beyond the Rhetoric,” Columbia Political Review 7, no. 1 (November 2007).

3. Roger Burbach, “The Rise of Food Fascism: Allied to Global Agribusiness, Agrarian Elite Fomenting Coup in Bolivia,” Global Alternatives News, June 30, 2008,

4. Tony Phillips, “The Bolivian Crisis, the OAS, and UNASUR,” Americas Policy Program Discussion Paper, September 30, 2008,

5. Laura Carlsen, “The Failure of U.S. ‘Democracy Promotion’ in Bolivia,” Americas Policy Program column, October 31, 2008,

6. The Andean Information Network, “Bolivian Coca Growers Cut Ties With USAID,” June 27, 2008: available at

7. Ibid. See also Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta A. Youngers, “ONDCP Reports No Increase in Coca Cultivation in Bolivia in 2006,” May 23, 2007: available at

Roger Burbach is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA), based in Berkeley, California. He has written extensively on Latin America and U.S. foreign policy.


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